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John Birkhead

One of the late John Birkhead’s most dedicated friends through the years has been Phillip Duncan, a 1961 graduate at Burges High School who was on the track team when Birkhead was head track coach and an assistant football coach under Bill Bookout.

DUNCAN WRITES: “Coach Birkhead had a profound influence on me and all of his athletes and encouraged us to go into teaching and coaching. … I hope that you can do an article on him so your influence might get him the long overdue recognition he deserves.”

I remember John Birkhead well. I was sports editor of the El Paso Herald-Post when Birkhead tragically passed away at the tender age of 52 in 1982. I also remember the impact he left on sports and his players.


 BIRKHEAD WAS so appreciated he was inducted into the El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame the very next year after his death. Some of his accomplishments were reported at the time.

• Lettered in football and track at Austin High School

• Spent two years as football player at UTEP on both offense and defense and participated in four years of track

• His athletic career includes 14 years of amateur basketball, 12 years of bowling and 14 years of semi-pro baseball.

• An outstanding softball player for 33 years, he was selected Most Valuable Pitcher in 29 tournaments and was elected Mr. Softball in 1970.

• He coached football at Austin High and Burges High and also coached track, golf and cross country for two state championships.

• Served 10 years as assistant athletic director for El Paso public schools



 BIRKHEAD WAS totally dedicated to his craft as track coach. He spent countless hours and his own money maintaining the Burges track and field facilities. 

He dug out the high jump and long jump pits himself. 

For the pole vault pit, he hauled bales of hay and filled it with sawdust and cottonseed hulls. He acquired finish line stands from the airport.  From leather and lead that he bought, he fabricated leather and lead ankle weights.

As an El Paso Independent School District consultant, he set up track and cross country meets; went personally to all tournaments bringing the necessary supplies; held organizational meetings and district, city middle school and junior high meets; sent meet results to the newspapers; and arranged transportation, rooms and meals for out-of-town teams.

ARMANDO GUTIERREZ, a former EPSID athletic director and at the time superintendent for transportation and maintenance, recalled how Birkhead died in 1982.

“During lunch he was running at Ross Junior High School, something he had done for years, when he passed out. He never regained consciousness.”


EPISD athletic director Clay Cox then said, “John not only was a great individual, he was important to this office. 

He was indispensable. He knew all forms of athletics and whatever John did was always thorough.”

A great person indeed.


 TRIVIA QUESTION: Last week I asked which Major League player came close to joining the Major League 40-40 Club in homeruns and stolen bases but fell one homerun short. It was Vladimir Guerrero. This week, I’m asking who are the players who belong to that 40-40 Club? Answer at end of column.



“I competed in June 29, 2019, in Lockhart, Texas, in the USATF Region Master Track and Field Championship. My event was the 400 meters, which I ran in one minute and 28 seconds in my age group, 75-59. I placed first. 

This event was dedicated to Bill Barry who passed away recently.

Bill was a true legend on road races and marathons. Bill and I were one of the few members of Half Fast Track left going back to the mid-seventies. Bill will be greatly missed.”


TRIVIA ANSWER: Jose Conseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano.



Veteran sports journalist, historian and author Ray Sanchez welcomes suggestions for his column.  Contact him at (915) 584-0626, by email at or online at